Think of Eugene O'Neill, and you're likely to think of such dark and profound dramas as "A Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "The Iceman Cometh."
You're unlikely to think of O'Neill as the creator of a comedy that has been adapted into two musicals, one starring Jackie Gleason and the other starring Mickey Rooney.
Greg Leaming, who's directing Asolo Repertory Theatre's "Ah, Wilderness!" says it's O'Neill's only true comedy, and that it's very entertaining. But it still has a lot to say. "It's a very dear play, a very sweet play," Leaming said. "It's lovely in the way it portrays these ordinary lives. And sometimes it's very funny."
The Asolo Rep production opens Friday at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts in Sarasota.
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"Ah, Wilderness!," Leaming said, is O'Neill's idealized vision of what his own youth should have been like.
"'A Long Day's Journey Into Night, is a much more accurate look at what his upbringing was actually like," Leaming said.
It's essentially a coming-of-age story about 17-year-old Richard Miller. All the action takes place on the Fourth of July 1906.
"It's America in its adolescence," Leaming said. "It's about a young man who, at 17, as we all are, is excited about his newly discovered political identity and his newly discovered place in the world. And, in the process, he discovers what love is."
"Ah, Wilderness!" became the basis for the Broadway musical "Take Me Along," which starred Robert Morse as Richard and Jackie Gleason in a Tony Award-winning role as Richard's drunken uncle. Wallace Beery starred in a 1935 film version of "Ah, Wilderness!" with Rooney in a small role. Rooney also starred in a movie musical adaptation titled "Summer Holiday."
The play is usually staged with a very realistic set, Leaming said, but the Asolo production takes a different tack. "Because it's kind of a dream play, we've loosened it up quite a bit," he said. He credits Steve Kemp, who's new to Asolo, with creating a stunningly beautiful set.
O'Neill incorporated several songs into his play -- there are three or four spots in which he calls for specific songs from the period to be played as background music -- and the Asolo production adds more to help evoke the era.
One of the things that makes "Ah, Wilderness!" so appealing to audiences, he said, is the way it depicts the ordinary lives of ordinary Americans.
"These are not big lives," he said. "These are middle-class people. These are small lives. Everyone in the audience will have experienced 90 percent of what they see happening on the stage."
Details: Jan. 22-April 10 (in repertory) at the Mertz Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: Various. Tickets: $13.30-$80. Information: 941-351-8000, asolorep.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.